The Knockout Artist

book by Harry Crews

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Rob Roberge introduced me to this underrated but brilliant writer who pretty much blew me away. He passed away Wednesday at the age of 76. In his honor, we’re re-running this annotation from 2009.

Given the dark subject matter, I had thought this noir book would be a chore, but found it instead a heartbreaking delight. Crews takes us directly into the dark underbelly of society, accompanying Eugene, the eponymous knockout artist, to one of his gigs. He gives us Eugene’s simple look at the world, taking stock in his surroundings, staring at the jackets in the closet across from him. When Jake comes in with Oyster-Boy, thin, pale, shedding skin, a dog collar around his neck led by the enormous and salacious Purvis, we know that he has crept into the darkest side of town, the part most of us don’t want to see but can’t help staring at. But Eugene keeps his head, protects himself by fighting off any interaction with these people and goes and does his job, knocking himself out.

Within one chapter, Crews has given us a coherent world and a solid hero with a strong voice. There is something uncorruptable about Eugene, made more obvious by his introduction taking place in a deeply corrupt society. What is it about this guy that is so decent despite the fact that he is a kept man and knocks himself out to make money? He is deeply buried in self-loathing, but there is something solid at the core of Eugene that will never be soiled. The complexity of a character having such opposing aspects to his personality makes for a compelling protagonist. I seriously need to work toward that, but figure I’m still years away.

Things for Eugene are bound to get worse, we know this from our classic noir surroundings; his simple act of blacking out regularly is very Phillip Marlowe. Of course we are introduced to the mysterious and tragic woman (Jake), then the user trouble woman (Charity).

Pete is a beautiful best friend character. Crews does a great thing by taking us inside Eugene’s hopes for Pete. When it looks like Pete is getting his life together, Eugene buys it. We know because of the nature of the book something awful will happen, but Crews is careful about weaving Eugene’s hope in a way that makes us feel it with him; Tulip cleaning up Pete’s apartment, the fact that the two are clearly in love. Eugene has a respect for this real love, and knows more and more clearly it is not what he shares with Charity. Crews has a real eye for finding the good in people readers might otherwise not think of: Tulip who had a sex act with a teddy bear on Bourbon Street, is the woman who gives Pete something larger to live for. And Pete, porn and snuff film projectionist, who could not make peace with Eugene’s knockout living, saw the good in her, which makes him more appealing.

There is such tragic beauty in Eugene’s dealings with Blasingame. It is Eugene who takes Pete into his deal with Blasingame, and it is Blasingame’s world that ruins Pete forever. In trying to free himself from corruption and kink (the knocking himself out) he has unwittingly led Pete down the path to destruction. It is on Blasingame’s boat that the clean Tulip uses again, which plants the seeds for her downward slide, making our final image of Pete, fully immersed in Blasingame’s world, a complete and utter destruction whose responsibility rests on Eugene’s shoulders.

The tenuous, frenetic hope that Crews weaves around Eugene and Pete’s plans for a future in boxing management reminded me a lot of April’s spinning hopes about Paris in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. You can feel the exhilaration of the character, especially when Pete gets on board and starts talking Blasingame’s ear off. But their enthusiasm creates its own tension, since the reader is fully aware that things are not going to end well. It is such a careful balance and I would like to somehow steal that for the climax of my book.  (I actually did end up stealing Yates/Crews’ technique which worked quite nicely)

Charity takes the Noir female villain to the next level. She has the upper hand when we first meet her, as she is keeping Eugene and cataloging him with her sex-produced recording sessions. Crews builds a dominating woman, but once Eugene gets into her files and learns that she was kicked out of school, she becomes even more vulnerable and therefore more interesting. Charity’s drive to get inside other people’s lives and destroy them is all bluster; this fragility makes her completely fascinating and when she takes an interest in Jake, Eugene and we feel genuine worry for her. This reminds me that I need to build my villain’s motivation in a more human way. If I can get into her human need to collect souls, beyond a supernatural level, she’ll be much more interesting. I have her motivation from a stance of pure evil and, frankly, that’s not enough.

Eugene has lost everything, including the one friend who had loved him for who he was and had kept him together. But Crews is careful to leave us with a sense of hope. Jacques comes into the picture only at the end, but we get the sense that his Cajun common sense may well be a solid calming force in Eugene’s life and may help him hang onto the shred of decency at his core. This is an important reminder that if you lead your reader down a dark path, you can’t abandon them there. A sad story works better with a glimmer of hope, or at least a foothold and forward movement for its hero. Something gained.

This was a truly artful book, a pleasure to read, completely not in a genre I’ve ever written, and yet it was totally useful.


The Hunger Games

book by Suzanne Collins

annotation by Kate Maruyama

The premise of Annotation Nation is that every book we read holds something useful for us as writers. The Hunger Games was no exception. I took the excuse that I’m working on a middle grade fiction book to delve into the best selling YA, but it was a thin excuse (my book is reality and history based). Then I used the fact that I need to take my twelve year old to the movie, so I’d better read it first. Then the fact that most adults I talk to who’ve read it say “OhmyGod” and roll their eyes in bliss at the mention of the book.

Long and short, I gobbled up all three books within the space of two weeks and went into mourning for the series passing in a way I haven’t experienced since I was fifteen. But you can get reviews of The Hunger Games anywhere online now. The question for an annotation is: How does the author do what she does and what makes it work?

Hopped up on caffeine and talking about this series with my friend and AN partner, Diane Sherlock, I realized one could probably write a dissertation on this series, it would of course go off into speculative fiction, dystopian futures, allegory, etc. But for the sake of keeping the annotation at least readable, I’m going to deal with mechanics.

Suzanne Collins gives us a fully realized world, the scope of which is limited due to its being a totalitarian state with controlled information—our view of this world grows, with our heroine’s, over the course of the books, but in bite-sized chunks. The fully-realized world of District 12 includes, textures, smells, structures, wildlife, diet (and lack thereof), rules, and is seen through the eyes and told in the strong voice of our heroine, Katniss.

Katniss isn’t interesting because she’s the sparkling heroine of a bestselling series, but because she is very human in her petty desires, foolish choices, and lack of expertise. Collins plants us firmly in a real person who knows her inadequacies, constantly misreads situations and people and, soon after making rash decisions, realizes the trouble she manages to get herself into. The rawness and suddenness of Katniss’s realizations not only make her interesting, but keep the reader completely aligned with her throughout the story, enabling the trove of surprises Collins’ has up her sleeve to remain surprising.

Throughout the story, which follows a typical hero’s journey, and in which we expect a proper hero to be built—Katniss is learning, but she will achieve greatness, right?–but Collins keeps her human. Her heroism is accidental. In the sequels, her rise to being a political player are accidental as well and she realizes she’s being built into something that she’s not. Her awareness of her shortcomings are brought out through her admiration of another character (left nameless to keep that first read of the first book entertaining), whom she knows is a truly good person with only heroic motives. Katniss’s understanding that her choices are often selfish or self-saving humble her at the hands of her noble friend. And this awareness keeps us, as readers, completely in her court. If she were the superhero who went off to save the world, we might not be so fully aligned.

Collins also has a unique knack for subverting expectation and it is this talent that makes The Hunger Games series so readable.  She frequently uses the old YA trick of making the last line of a chapter a cliffhanger, “She just has time to reach her hand through the mesh and say my name before the spear enters her body.” (232) “The ants bore into my eyes and I black out.” (194) This trick gets almost comical in the two sequels with that last line zing so pronounced, but remains artful nonetheless as each zing is supremely original and completely subverts the expectations Katniss had in the prior paragraphs.

Where Collins really excels is in the actual surprises of plot. I’m a reader/filmviewer who tends to spoil my own fun by figuring out the rest of a plot halfway through any book/movie. But in The Hunger Games, which seems as if it should be formulaic and predictable–every moment you think you’ve figured out the plot and which way it will turn, the author changes loyalties, expectations, and the game itself, dodging and weaving so that you keep turning the pages, following her lead, guessing where it will go next. And, despite these tricks and turns, the reader never feels betrayed. So often stories take so many twists to baffle the reader that the author loses our trust. But in this book, each plot turn is in accordance with the characters and the world Collins has created for us.  The moment you ask, “How could they?” a part of you answers, “but of course.” For it seems no other way would have worked.

It doesn’t hurt Collins’ YA audience that she has a flair for describing fashion and food and the bedazzling world of the capitol. The rich description creates a sense of wonder and fascination, but elicits disgust from our heroine, accustomed to near-starvation conditions in her poor district. My inner teenager was completely sated by clever futuristic costumes, described down to their concept and execution, by rich, unending food and our heroine’s need to eat up against starving in the games, and by complete makeovers. We’re allowed to revel in the rich world and its trappings, because, with Katniss, we are also allowed to feel superior to such frippery. Deftly handled.

As writers, we so often fall into patterns. I adore it when my characters lead me in an unexpected direction, but so often, I’m trying to force plot and expectations onto them that they become clumsy and plodding. Often I have to delete pages on pages when things get predictable. I think that if we listen to our characters and, when at a plot crossroads, ask if perhaps we should bang a left instead of continuing straight, we may find ourselves in territory new not only to our readers, but to ourselves. We can’t go into our prose and inject chapter cliffhangers—particularly in grownup books, and we can’t wedge in fashion knowledge and sumptuous meals if they aren’t already innate in our knowledge (Collins claims to have been fascinated with fashion as a teen), and we may not even have a calling to writing a dystopian future. But Collins has other lessons for writers to learn.

Dystopian future is neither my calling, nor my province, I leave that realm for other, more suited, friend and relative writers (Kit Reed, Nicole Sconiers) to carry out. After all, at least according to NPR, it looks like there’s a market.

But Collins has much to teach us as far as character, realm (owning it, no matter where or when it is) and plotting. If we can think of each book–no matter how reality based– as its own world, if we can make its mythology solid and its characters true and human, we can reap the benefits of the tools laid out for us in this extremely popular YA novel.